In this three-part series, Pure Land columnist Alan Kwan examines the three most important vows of Amitabha Buddha’s forty-eight vows, which constitute Amitabha’s plan for saving sentient beings. These are known as the Three Vows of Deliverance.
Amongst the 48 vows made by Amitabha Buddha, three vows directly apply to those who wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. As the prime purpose of Pure Land Buddhism is rebirth in the Pure Land, these three vows are very important as they indicate three ways how Amitabha Buddha delivers sentient beings to the Land of Bliss.
As Pure Land practitioners, we want to know what to do so we are reborn in the Land of Bliss after we die. However, we should actually think in the other way round, from the point of view of Amitabha Buddha. As it is Amitabha Buddha who made the vows, it is more appropriate to see how Amitabha Buddha fulfills his vows for the deliverance of sentient beings. What does Amitabha Buddha have to do for us to receive us to his paradise?
Bluntly put, without the ‘consent’ and the power of Amitabha Buddha, no being is able to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, even Bodhisattvas with the highest realization. Amitabha Buddha created his Pure Land for the sentient beings in the ten directions. He welcomes all beings who want to be reborn there. The door of the Land of Bliss is always open. Once we are reborn in the Land of Bliss, we automatically become a family member of Amitabha Buddha. We can enjoy almost the same quality of life as Amitabha Buddha, because the Land of Bliss is his home, a realm of unconditioned nirvana.
Let’s study the aforementioned three vows:
The 18th vow affirms:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and recite my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
The 19th vow proclaims:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions, who set forth the Bodhi Mind, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely aspire for Enlightenment, and desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
The 20th vow declares:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who, having heard my Name, concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant the root of various virtues, and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their expected reward, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
The statement that ‘may I not attain perfect Enlightenment’ clearly shows that Amitabha Buddha attains perfect Enlightenment (to be a Buddha) for the purpose of delivering all sentient beings in the ten directions who wish to be reborn in his land.
All three vows have two phrases in common: ‘sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions and ‘desire to be born in my land.’ It means that the target of deliverance covers all sentient beings in the ten directions that desire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. ‘Desire to be born’ can be interpreted as a condition or prerequisite of rebirth in the Land of Bliss; it is known as ‘aspiration’, one of the ‘Three Sambhara’ (faith, aspiration and practice) in Pure Land Buddhism.
Due to the differences in capacity, interests and other causal conditions of sentient beings, Amitabha Buddha offers different ways that allow three different classes of beings to be reborn there. The three vows basically cover all Pure Land practitioners who want to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. They can take different approaches and different practices as per the specifications in the three vows.
Moreover, there is another key word in the three vows – sincerely, which means ‘truly’ and ‘faithfully.’ Faith is essential in Pure Land Buddhism. However, it should be noted that practitioners have faith in different aspects of the three vows. For instance, some have faith in entrustment in the 18th vow; some have faith in aspiration for Enlightenment to be reborn in the 19th vow; and some have faith in transference of merits and virtues through practices in the 20th vow.
As a result, Amitabha Buddha offers different promises in the respective vows. The conditions are different: ‘should not be born there’ in the 18th vow; ‘should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages’ in the 19th vow; and ‘should not eventually fulfill their expected reward’ in the 20th vow.
The 18th Vow – faith in entrustment
Practitioners include all sentient beings, whether they are monastic or householders, whether they have superior or inferior capabilities, whether they have great or no virtues, and whether they learn of Amitabha Buddha at present life or near the end of their life.
Upon hearing Amitabha Buddha’s teaching of salvation, they ‘sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to’ Amitabha Buddha [faith]. Secondly, they ‘desire to be reborn’ in the Land of Bliss [aspiration]. Lastly, they exclusively ‘recite’ Amitabha’s name [practice]. As a result, Amitabha Buddha promises that the practitioner, even if he is going to die and is able to recite his name just ten times, is assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
The sequence of the ‘Three Sambhara’ in this vow is ‘faith, aspiration and practice.’ Based on faith, practitioners ‘sincerely and joyfully entrust’ themselves to Amitabha Buddha. Since the practitioner utterly trusts Amitabha Buddha, the latter undertakes the entire task of assuring the rebirth of the practitioner in his land.
It is the only vow, out of the 48 vows, in which Amitabha Buddha guarantees rebirth in the Land of Bliss. It is an extremely serious commitment for Amitabha Buddha to make a statement in his vow that ‘…should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.’
Amitabha Buddha would never achieve Buddhahood if he failed to receive the practitioners who have faith in his salvation. Fortunately, he has achieved Buddhahood and, of course, fulfilled his 18th vow ten kalpas ago. Amitabha Buddha is now fully capable of receiving all practitioners who follow the 18th vow in order to be reborn in his land.
This vow is also known as the fundamental vow or Primal Vow, a guarantee of salvation before time itself. If there were no fundamental vow, there would be no Pure Land Buddhism. If this vow were not fulfilled, all other 47 vows would be insignificant and meaningless. This vow is so important that beings that recite Amitabha’s name according to the 18th Vow have a direct, intimate, unbreakable relationship with Amitabha Buddha. We must follow Shakyamuni Buddha’s interpretation of Amitabha Buddha’s fundamental vow because the meaning of this vow is extremely profound. We should not follow any other interpretation of this vow, except that from the three Pure Land sutras. We should not change, amend or add any of our ideas to the interpretation of this vow either.Due to the fulfillment of this vow, all Buddhas extol the name of Amitabha Buddha, and encourage ordinary beings in the ten directions to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. As the development of Pure Land Buddhism was initiated by this vow, it is called the fundamental vow.